2011 Beverage Excellence Award Winners

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The 2011 Cheers Beverage Excellence Awards salute the on-premise beverage alcohol industry’s leaders in concept innovation and implementation.


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The 2011 Cheers Beverage Excellence Awards salute the on-premise beverage alcohol industry’s leaders in concept innovation and implementation. This recognition is one of the highest beverage industry honors bestowed upon operators of chain and multi-concept restaurants.

Winners were chosen by a judging panel made up of beverage professionals and members of the Cheers editorial team. Award criteria centers around beverage program originality and its impact on overall sales and profitability. Winning programs include new programs as well as initiatives that have stood the test of time.

The awards will be presented by Cheers publisher Charles Forman and editor-in-chief Liza B. Zimmerman during the Cheers Beverage Conference at the New Orleans Marriott in New Orleans on January 25 to 26, 2011.


Best Chain overall beverage program

bar louie

Sponsored by Monin

Putting the Bar Back in Bar Louie

It’s almost 8 p.m. on a chilly November night in Evanston, IL. and Blake Rohrabaugh is getting close. Sipping a mix of Bourbon, Grand Marnier and apple juice with dash of Angostura bitters he’s just poured into a glass rimmed with crushed candy canes, Rohrabaugh pronounces the holiday cocktail good, but not quite good enough. “It has to be great,” says Rohrabaugh, beverage director of Glenview, IL.-based Bar Louie, dumping the drink. Especially if it’s going to join four other already perfected cocktails just developed for Bar Louie’s 2011 “Sips of the Season” Holiday promotional line-up.” You can get a good drink anywhere,” Rohrabaugh explains. “But a great drink? We want people to know they can rely on getting that here.”

This “good isn’t good enough” mantra has helped Bar Louie hone in on developing more cohesive beverage programming throughout the 43-unit chain over the last two years. That in turn has fueled Bar Louie’s continued climb in beverage sales. Sales jumped 13.8 percent in 2009 and another 7.8 percent in 2010 to the point that beverages now account for 57 percent of Bar Louie’s total sales. Spirits represent 30 percent, beer 24.6 percent and wine 3.5 percent of the group’s drinks mix. And the team has set its sights even higher, hoping to continue that climb. These sales increases and the chain’s dedication to producing stellar drinks across categories have garnered it the Cheers’ 2011 Best Chain Overall Beverage Program, sponsored by Monin.

It all started with some navel gazing of the right sort. “Back in 2008 we took a hard look at our beverage programs system wide and realized that they were very eclectic, and not eclectic in a good way,” explains Rohrabaugh. “Nothing was cohesive. The ‘bar’ in Bar Louie had gotten lost somewhere. We needed to integrate what we were doing with culinary, beverage and marketing into one plan.”

Working to pull everything together, Bar Louie recast itself and rebranded its beverage programs to better capture the hip, fun, neighborhood-bar mystique. “We changed how we described the drinks, came out with an upscale hard-cover menu that featured beverages more prominently than food and started developing a personality-with-attitude for a behind the scenes ‘Louie’ by adding ‘Louie Says,’ ‘Louie’s Advice’ and ‘Louie’s Notions’ comments and tips on the menus. We also put into place a much more comprehensive beer and cocktail promotional program,” says Rohrabaugh.

Back to Better Bartending

The company also put a lot more emphasis on bartender training. “When we were only nine units, most managers were the bartenders and it was easy to convey that neighborhood bar feel,” says Rohrabaugh “But with 43 units that got away from us.” To put better bartending back into the equation, Bar Louie instituted a training program in 2010 including a new bar book focusing on drink-making techniques, recipes, day-to-day activities and practical skills like “Knowing Bar Lingo” and “How to Handle an Unruly Customer,” under the banner of “How to be a Good Bartender.” Rohrabaugh also sends out monthly newsletters on new techniques, drink specials and beer programming.

In order to foster creativity within the ranks, Bar Louie also encourages all unit bartenders to submit recipes to be considered for inclusion on new menus every year. And, “we have a best bartender competition to determine the best bartender at each location, and system wide,” says Rohrabaugh.

As part and parcel of its rebranding, Bar Louie has also redoubled efforts to stay on the cutting edge with cocktail development while still maintaining high volume and consistency. “This is not a place were you can spend 15 minutes making one drink,” says Rohrabaugh. “But there’s no reason we can’t be cutting edge by being among the first chain-restaurant bars to carry new spirits on the market [such as] Red Stag Black Cherry Bourbon infusion, cachaça, St. Germain, and finding ways to create drinks that are great and deliverable by our staff even when they’re busy.”

Cutting Edge, Approachably

Lately, Rohrabaugh says he’s been developing more drinks with gin, rum and whiskey, with fun names and promotional materials and events designed to make new drinks approachable. A few examples include the Naughty Irish School Girl, made with X-Rated Fusion Liqueur, Jameson Irish Whiskey, grapefruit juice, grenadine, an orange wedge and a Blow Pop sucker, priced at from $9 to $10 depending on location. And, The Torched Cherry Lemonade, made with Bacardi Torched Cherry Rum, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, sour mix, Fee Brothers’ Orange Bitters and lemon juice, priced from $9 to $10 depending on location.

Rohrabaugh also continues to work on improving the quality of what goes into all the drinks. “We used to have this awful sour mix on the gun,” he says. “We wanted to do fresh, housemade sour mix, but it just wasn’t feasible with the volume we do to hand-squeeze all of that citrus.” Nationwide searches finally yielded a Florida source for gallon-jugs of fresh lime and lemon juice mixed with sugar.

Rohrabaugh also selectively menus at least a few drinks that rely on specialty ingredients, like the pumpkin puree that was in one of last year’s holiday specialty cocktails and the egg white that was in the Velvet (made with Ultimate Vodka, St. Germain, egg white, fresh sour mix and orange bitters), priced at $9 to $10 depending on location. “These may not be the biggest sellers, but they add a lot in communicating quality and freshness that we’re trying to achieve,” says Rohrabaugh.

Behind the Beer Handles

Beerwise, Bar Louie has also expanded the number of beers it offers throughout the country, to make regional and craft beer selections more available and to enhance the neighborhood-bar image. While some smaller units have less, and big-volume units have up to 40, the average Bar Louie now has 20 beer handles to work with. “We used to mandate all of them, but now, we mandate only twelve, giving general managers the freedom to decide what else goes up there,” says Rohrabaugh. 

A big part of the fun behind one of the beer handles? Bar Louie’s Beer of the Month. For this, each bar asks guests to submit ideas for the beer they’d like to see on tap. Ballots with four to five beers on them are circulated. Beer vendors get into the act and come in to “campaign” for their beer, handing out buttons and handshakes. Guest votes and the winning beer are celebrated at a once-monthly Beer Tapping party.

Bar Louie’s current wine offerings, listed under “Louie’s Grapes” on the menu, are kept to nine “Beautiful Blondes”  (white wines) and 13 “Fiery Redheads” (red wines), plus one sparkling wine (Rotari Brut). Rohrabaugh says the chain doesn’t plan to expand the wine program dramatically, preferring to keep the focus on beer and cocktails. “Moving forward, we plan to limit our wine selections and instead, shift our focus to capitalizing on innovative cocktails and beer offerings that enhance the culture of the Bar Louie concept. Wine-based cocktails like Sangria, however, are a growing trend and would be a great fit for our concept, especially at a $8 to $10 price point.”

Creating the Buzz

To drive traffic and create constant buzz with both beer and cocktails, Bar Louie now has 10 promotional events it hosts: Beer Tapping Parties every month and several others which happen for a full month, such as Ronas and Ritas, or, on several consecutive Fridays, like Fiesta Fridays in May. Rohrabaugh says these can increase traffic from as much as 20 to 100 percent depending on the night and the event.

Of these, Ronas and Ritas (Corona beers and Bar Louie’s signature Dos Sauza Margaritas for $3 throughout the month of June) has proven very popular and includes a rock-band competition sponsored by Corona. “We sold hundreds of thousands of Margaritas,” says Rohrabaugh. Also in June, the chain featured its “Louie’s Beach Party” one Saturday, based on a “best promotion” contest winning “Louie’s Luau” that the Deerfield unit held in 2009. “Every year, we have a competition with a big-cash award offered for the winning general manager, for the unit that comes up with the best ‘Louie-themed’ promotion.” Rohrabaugh explains. “We measure it two ways, first: ‘How does it measure up year-over-year sales wise?’ And second, ‘Is it cool?’ The company then repeats the winning promotion system wide, the following year.

Bar Louie’s Sex in the City II premier parties also upped traffic at the company’s mall locations by 10 to 20 percent. “We missed this opportunity with the first Sex and the City movie, so we decided to really blow it out for the second premier,” says Rohrabaugh. Bar Louie rolled red carpet and put out movie-line stanchions with velvet ropes and full-size movie posters outside of participating units. Guests who saw the movie were given free drinks in exchange for movie-ticket stubs, and, Bar Louie gave away tickets to premiere movie showings.

Looking ahead, Rohrabaugh says the chain will continue to add close to twenty new cocktails each year, new beers and promos, plus fresh ingredients and fun—not-stuffy—presentations. High on that list right now is stemware. “We’re switching to a classic stemmed Martini glass,” says Rohrabaugh. “Of course, it is at the center of our logo.” From seasonal menus to unique upcoming promotions, Bar Louie will continue to strive to be on the cutting edge in drinks trends.



Best Chain Spirits Program

Ocean Prime

Sponsored by Pernod Ricard

Ocean Prime’s Updated Classics

Director of beverage Ryan Valentine remembers it clearly: “Four years ago, before Cameron Mitchell changed the name of our Columbus, Ohio Mitchell’s Ocean Club to Ocean Prime, I was looking at the menu. Right underneath the restaurant name were three words: World Class Cocktails. Those words stopped me in my tracks,” he says. “I realized that our cocktails just didn’t measure up to that world-class title.”

The moment was to be a turning point for the concept. Shortly after, Cameron Mitchell recast the Ocean Club to become Ocean Prime, a modern American supper club that has since grown into an eight-unit chain, and in tandem, Valentine has revitalized and overhauled the cocktail program to make it chef-driven and fresh-ingredient focused. The result has been a .5 percentage increase in sales mix over the last four years, which is now at 34 percent beverage. This is among the many reasons the chain has earned the Cheers’ Best Chain Spirits Program Award, sponsored by Pernod Ricard.

“The way we fit the drinks with our modern-supper club identity is to take classic cocktails and update them,” says Valentine. Rather than do a straight Gimlet for example, Ocean Prime does a Cucumber Gimlet, with fresh muddled cucumber, lime, simple syrup, and Bombay Sapphire gin, priced at $12. In fact, all Ocean Prime drinks are made with fresh squeezed juices and house-made mixes and purees. The fresh approach, says Valentine, does require more coordination between the bar team and kitchen staff. But staff has adjusted and now actively participates in both mixing—and creating new—drinks. To ensure accuracy, bar chefs must take pour tests and pass a practical exam, making every cocktail exactly according to recipe, before they can tend bar.

Each year, Ocean Prime also launches a fresh cocktail menu that includes four core drinks, four new cocktails and two region-specific drinks. Development of each new spate of cocktails happens with the help of a full cast of celebrity mixologists, unit chefs and bartenders, who come together during seven mixology sessions to create and test drinks.

Development of 2010’s specialty drinks happened with the help of four mixologists: Kim Haasarud, Josh Durr, Tad Carducci and Bryan Loukmas who created four top-scoring drinks, all priced at $12, for Ocean Prime’s list. The Black Orchid, from Hassarud, is a mix of Belvedere Black Raspberry vodka, St. Germain, fresh lemon and white cranberry juice garnished with an orchid ice-ball. Oxygen, by Carducci, has Absolut Berri Açai vodka, Plymouth, muddled white grapes, fresh basil and lemon. The Pear Grapefruit Fizz from Durr is a mix of Asian-pear-infused Finlandia Grapefruit vodka, fresh lime and grapefruit soda. And the Tequila Cocktail, from Loukmas blends Corzo Silver Tequila, fresh-squeezed orange juice and lime with spice-infused agave nectar.

Next year, Ocean Prime will continue to up the ante on bar training as all bartenders are on board to go through the Bar Smarts program. “We’d also like to do more to regionalize the Ocean Prime experience,” says Valentine. “Beyond that, we just want to continue to enhance the program. Nothing over-complex or ornate, just simple, updated classics,” Valentine concludes.     


Best Chain Wine Program

P.F. Chang’s

A Taste for Discovery

P.F. Chang’s creates memorable dining experiences by serving up the unexpected. A blend of Chinese design mixed with modern bistro sets the stage for a unique experience of bold creative dishes and a wide variety of drink options, many from their innovative wine list.

Mary Melton, director of beverage says, “Our goal is to offer familiar wines but also sprinkle in a couple of new discoveries.  I try not to go too far out there, I look for varietals or brands that are up and coming.” Scottsdale, Arizona based P.F. Chang’s has 201 locations and the wine menu varies by location. There is an anchor list of 24 wines, and the rest are chosen by the individual location or picked from the “wine cellar” list.

There are some Italian and Spanish wines and even a few German Rieslings, but the selection tends to lean more towards New World wines, which pair particularly well with the bold flavored food. Wine prices range from $2.75 for a half-glass of Beringer White Zinfandel to $67 for a bottle of Franciscan “Magnificat” Cabernet Sauvignon, with the vast majority of wines in the $20 to 30 range per bottle. According to Melton, “When people go to an Italian restaurant they order pinot grigio or chianti at a steak house they go for a Dirty Martini then a cabernet sauvignon. At P.F. Chang’s when they walk through the door they have no preconceived ideas. They are open to anything.” This allows P.F. Chang’s to offer and sell a wider variety of wines than might be expected. For their innovative take on the wine business and more P.F. Changs is the winner of Cheers’ 2001 Best Chain Wine Award Program Award.

Serving a large assortment that encompasses familiar and unfamiliar choices continues to be key to the chain’s success. To drive experimentation, wines are offered in a 3.5-ounce, half-glass pour, by the glass, half carafe and bottle. Because food is served family style it can be tricky to pair wines with it. P.F. Chang’s encourages ordering by the glass so customers can experience variety in just one visit. The range of pour sizes enables experimentation. They also have a “build your own” wine flight, where customers can choose any three selections. That encourages them to try something they are comfortable with and something new all at once, according to Melton.

Wine descriptors arranged by mouth feel and flavor rather than by varietal also encourage exploration. Category arrangements use easy-to-understand descriptors like “Lush,” “Soft & Tangy,” “Rich & Spicy” and “Powerful” for red wines and “Fruity,” “Floral,” “Tangy” and “Creamy” for white wines. The categories include examples to further clarify, so the “Lush” category uses the descriptor “Strawberries and Raspberries,” while the “Creamy” category is described as “Rich & Textured.”

How does a chain create a quality wine that is a true representation of the food they offer? They build it themselves. P.F. Chang’s Vineyard 518 is not simply a private label. The chain controls the varietals, vineyard sources, oak and acidity levels present, allowing them to create the wine they want, to best pair with their dishes. They are the first national restaurant group to create their own wine bag in box. It’s the right thing for the environment and the wine stays fresher from a quality standpoint. The program was launched this past May 18th and the operator did a toast across the country in all locations at 5:18pm to “ring in” the new wine. Since the launch, over 35,000 glasses have been sold.

Creativity has paid off handsomely; the chain reported $50 million in wine sales for the past 12 months with wine units up 4.7 percent year over year. In the future they will continue to introduce new discovery wines, something that clearly works for their concept. They are willing to try different wines, and perhaps a Grüner Veltliner from Austria or a Spanish wine from the Priorat region will show up on menus. With discovery as a road map, the future continues to look bright for P.F. Chang’s.


Best Chain beer Program 

Yard House

Success on Tap

The Yard House is known for American food and classic rock music, but what truly distinguishes it is the tremendous variety of beers, all served on tap. Each store features 100 to 250 handles, the model being 130 handles and 110 brands. The state-of-the-art keg room maintains a constant temperature of 34 to 38 degrees, ensuring beer is always fresh and tastes great. This broad and growing beer selection is one of the reasons the chain has won Cheers’ Best Chain Beer Program.

Yard House conducts ongoing training allowing tastings of up to 12 different beers at a time, from lighter to deeper and darker. According to Kip Snider, director of beverage for the Irvine, California based 29-location operation, “Some beers will sell themselves and so we try to focus staff training on some of the smaller brands.”

Beer is served in a “half yard” 32-ounce pour, traditional pint or six-pack sampler that encourages exploration. According to Snider, “We might have a Belgian or rotating selection with six five-ounce glasses with different styles and it comes with a sheet specifying the origin, alcohol and tasting notes.” Sampling is key, and they offer three-ounce pours for $1 to 2, which Snider says is not only required by some states but a good deal for Yard House. 

While prices vary, domestics are priced lower than craft and imported brands, and profitability is always greater on domestics. Last year they sold 7.2 million pints, which vary in price from $4.25 to $8. Last year’s beer sales were $46.3 million and the pint sales were $7.3 million and another $360,000 for half yards. Draft beer sales were $54 million.

While the beer may vary from location to location, the food stays the same. Yard House features American comfort food, sometimes with a little Asian flair. There is a wide variety of beer-friendly appetizers, sandwiches, burgers and pizza, but when it comes to pairing Snider says, “We’ve stayed away from it, everybody’s taste buds are different so we describe the flavor profile of a dish then give a style or a few that works well with it.” Ultimately the choice is the left up to the customer to drink what they like with the food they like. The beer menu is broken down into the styles like a progressive wine menu from light pub ales to stronger brews, making it easy for staff to make suggestions and guests to find something they like.

Yard House has seen tremendous success with their house beers, which are brewed by Firestone Walker Brewing Company. The Yard House Craft Beer includes House Amber Ale, House Hefeweizen, House Honey Blonde and House Pale Ale. They are currently available in about half the stores and Snider is hoping to offer them company-wide in the future.

In addition to happy hour, Yard House does a “reverse happy hour” offering the same half price on appetizers and reduction on draft beers at the end of the night from 10 to 11 pm or midnight, depending on the location.

The chain is poised for growth, with 29 units by the end of 2010 in California; Colorado; Texas; Illinois; Kansas; Arizona; Hawaii; Nevada; Florida; Massachusetts and six more are planned for 2011. Snider is tight-lipped about plans for the future, but says innovations are in the works. Expect to see the development of mobile apps, Facebook and Twitter promotions soon.


Best Chain drink Program


Skinny Love

The RAM restaurant group was always at the forefront of dynamic beer service and now has carved out totally new territory for itself with a truly unique cocktail program that is ahead of the times. The chain’s innovative Skinny Drinks program, debuted as an LTO in July, features unique low-cal cocktails that not only drive traffic and sales, but make the 30-unit restaurant and brewery chain stand out even more in all its markets. RAM sold a whopping 28,000 Skinny Drinks during the initial 60-day promotion from July to August, and sales continue strong, which is why the Lakewood, Wash.-based company has garnered Cheers’ 2011 Best Chain Drink Program Award.

“We want to be leaders, innovators,” declares Dave Iverson, RAM’s COO. That’s the spirit that last year earned the chain a Beverage Excellence Award for Best Chain Beer Program. That award was the impetus for this year’s program as  RAM execs were inspired by a low-cal Margarita they sampled at the Cheers Beverage Conference, which in turn sparked the inspiration for the Skinny Drinks program. Consumer and market demand was obviously there. An eagle-eyed RAM store manager spotted a number of guests concocting their own diet drinks with shots of tequila and smuggled in packets of Crystal Light.

“We were highly motivated to bring this idea to market,” says Mark Schermerhorn, RAM’s director of marketing and beverage promotions. The chain’s beverage marketing team met with supplier partners Diageo, Brown-Forman and Bacardi, who were enthusiastic about the Skinny concept. “They said, ‘You guys are so ahead of the curve,’” recalls Schermerhorn.

After tasting dozens of low-cal combos, four Skinny Drinks were developed from the chain’s most popular cocktails: the 80-Calorie Skinny Bacardi Mango Mojito, featuring Bacardi Superior, with Crystal Light Mango Iced Tea muddled with fresh lime and mint; the 80-Calorie Skinny Jose Cuervo Gold Margarita, with tequila, Crystal Light Lemonade and muddled lime; the 90-Calorie Skinny Smirnoff Citrus Lemon Drop Cooler with vodka, Crystal Light Lemonade and muddled lemon; and the 100-Calorie Skinny Finlandia Cosmo Cooler, with vodka, triple sec and Ocean Spray Light Cranberry Juice with muddled lime. Each drink is priced $6 and served in a distinctive tall 12-ounce “Skinny” glass, which is a modified Pilsner 11 inches tall.

“The term ‘Skinny’ was already part of our culture,” notes Schermerhorn. A small portion of beer, termed “Skinny” on the menu, is served in the glass co-opted for the diet cocktails–a useful cross-utilization. RAM also menued a “Skinny Burger,” in January 2009. The Skinny Burger is still on the menu. With this newest Skinny component, RAM is among the first chains to market under-100-calorie cocktails. Guests seem to come back specifically for the Skinny selections. “The program gives customers a good reason to come in our front door. It’s a brand differentiator for us,” says Schermerhorn.

Originally launched as an LTO, Skinny Drinks are now an integral part of the regular beverage program, prominently featured on the menu and well promoted. In the restaurants, floor teams are well-versed in how to hand-sell the Skinny cocktails and special four-sided table tents detail each of the four drinks. The low-cal drink program is prominently displayed on the chain’s website and Facebook as well as in regular email blasts and press releases.

Skinny Drink sales continue to grow, reports the COO. Partly it’s due to continuing promotional tie-ins. For a Seafood Celebration Menu, for example, Skinny Drinks were suggested pairings for the seafood dishes on the stand alone menu. Another drinks LTO featured a Skinny 1800 Silver Tequila Margarita. More will follow. Most importantly, says Iverson, “It’s not just that these drinks are low in calories. They taste really good.”        


Best Chain Beverage Menu

McCormick & Schmick’s
Sponsored by Island Oasis

Starting From Scratch

In an effort to attract a more diverse customer base and compliment changes to the food selection and design of its restaurants, the 80-unit, Portland, OR-based McCormick & Schmick’s has recreated its beverage menu over the past year. The new menu, which launched in January 2010, won the chain the Cheers 2011 Award for Best Chain Beverage Menu Award, sponsored by Island Oasis.

In redesigning the menu, McCormick & Schmick’s emphasized the history of the restaurant, as well as its specialty cocktails, seasonal cocktails, wines by the glass, brown spirits and beer. “We’ve always been proud of our bar program and considered it the cornerstone of our concept, but in the last couple years we got the sense it was getting stale,” says Mike Liedberg, executive vice president of operations. “We wanted to maintain the best pieces of the last 30 years, but knew our customer was changing and the economic conditions gave us an invitation to step back and make adjustments.”

The menu, which is flexible to reflect seasonal and local products at differing locations, features ten drinks (priced from $6.95 to $10.95), both classic and seasonal, as well as a wide selection of beer, wine and spirits. The selections were made as part of a collaborative effort at the company.

“Our team that developed the menu came from operations, marketing and culinary, as well as beverage,” Liedberg says. “We felt strongly that they all need to connect together. We also asked outside vendors to participate based on what they knew about our customers.

The new menu also includes a wide selection of Bourbon, Rye, Canadian and Irish Wh

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